Friday, September 22, 2017

How oceans are being used to cool massive data centres

Google's Hamina data centre is one of many that the company operates across the globe to handle 40,000 search queries a second.
Image: Google

From Motherboard by Paul Tadich

At a state-of-the-art Google server farm in Finland, the waters of the Gulf soothe red-hot microprocessors.

As the number of people around the world who are connecting to the internet continues to mushroom, the physical infrastructure necessary to support all that data is being upgraded and improved.
The International Telecommunication Union estimates that by the end of this year, 47 percent of the global population will be online.
Earlier this year, Google estimated it handles, on average, about 40,000 search queries every second.

Tech giants like Microsoft and Google are forever updating their data centres—the giant server farms that handle every download and search query thrust into the ether.
As the demand for these centres grows, the innovation that goes into building them gets increasingly more sophisticated.

Find out about Google's newest data center currently under construction in Hamina, Finland.
The  data center features an innovative sea water cooling system.

As the number of people around the world who are connecting to the internet continues to mushroom, the physical infrastructure necessary to support all that data is being upgraded and improved.
The International Telecommunication Union estimates that by the end of this year, 47 percent of the global population will be online.
Earlier this year, Google estimated it handles, on average, about 40,000 search queries every second.

Tech giants like Microsoft and Google are forever updating their data centres—the giant server farms that handle every download and search query thrust into the ether.
As the demand for these centres grows, the innovation that goes into building them gets increasingly more sophisticated.

The facility mixes warm seawater returning from the heat exchangers with colder water from the Gulf, mitigating environmental damage.
All images from Google

Microsoft attempted to reconcile the overheated output with population proximity by launching an experiment in 2015 called Project Natick.
Since 50 percent of the global population lives near a coastal area, they would use the cooling power that can be obtained from seawater.
Natick involved submerging a self-contained data centre underwater as a test case to see if submersible cloud computing is a viable technology.

Microsoft is researching ways to move power hungry and heat-prone data centers underwater.

The goals of Project Natick were twofold: to determine if ocean waters off the coast of California, at a depth of hundreds of metres, could be used in a heat-exchange system to draw off the thermal energy generated by the humming microprocessors in a submerged data centre; and to determine if wave energy could be captured to provide some of the power needed to crunch the massive quantities of data being handled by the underwater system.

Racks and racks of servers hum away at a Google data centre.

Natick was declared a success by Microsoft and they say they have plans to expand the program, but they are keeping the details of the next phase of the project a secret.
They refused to discuss their future plans with Motherboard.

A few thousand kilometres to the northeast, Google has been running a seawater-cooled data centre near the Finnish city of Hamina since 2011.
The idea may be less radical than operating an internet facility deep beneath the waves, but Google's Hamina operation has shown that it's possible to run a power-hungry data centre with minimal environmental impact.

Google's Hamina centre started life originally as the Summa paper mill, an industrial facility built in the 1950s.
Nestled on a quiet bay in the Gulf of Finland, about 130 kilometres northwest of Helsinki, the former mill features a huge seven-by-four-metre tunnel that runs under one of the buildings and directly into the Gulf.
Google opened the data centre after a €200 million investment ($240 million USD) that took advantage of the mill's unique architectural feature.

"The data centre here is one of the largest data centres in the world—if not the largest—to be using seawater as a coolant," said Arni Jonsson, senior facilities manager of the Hamina centre, on the phone from the site.
The tunnel is connected to a massive intake chamber that feeds directly into the centre's cooling system.
From here, the water is drawn by pumps into a series of heat exchangers, sucking the thermal energy from the racks of servers inside the centre before it's discharged back into the Gulf.
When the water returns, it's a few degrees warmer, and actually cleaner, than it was when it went in.
"It's all free-flow," said Jonsson.
"We don't use any energy in getting the water from the sea."

A group of Google employees engages in some ice fishing on the property of their data centre near Hamina, Finland

High water temperatures around power plants that occur when warmer water re-enters the ecosystem, for example, have been shown to result in algal blooms and dead fish zones.
But at Hamina, the outgoing water is mixed with seawater at the original temperature so this effect is mitigated.
"We were concerned with the impact of this heat coming back into the bay on the fish living there," said Jonsson.
"We are doing a study where we measure the impact of the site on the fish, the quantity of the fish.
So far, the impact has at least been positive.
We have seen an increase in the fish population." In addition, no chemicals are used in the heat-exchange process, according to Jonsson.

Other environmentally-conscious organizations are looking into more radical concepts for data centre design.
Nevertheless, a new effort is underway underscoring the delicate balance between industry and nature.
These data centres need to exist and we need to understand how they interact with their local environments.

One resource that all data centres require is vast amounts of water to cool their overheated circuits.
Whether it comes from a huge gulf or not, it's incumbent on us to ensure it's managed responsibly.

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

The fishing wars are coming

The Indonesian navy scuttles foreign fishing vessels caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters near Bitung, North Sulawesi, on May 20, 2015.
(Antara Foto/Reuters)

From WashingtonPost by James G. Stavridis and Johan Bergenas

James G. Stavridis was the 16th supreme allied commander at NATO and is dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Johan Bergenas is senior director for public policy at Vulcan Inc.

Lawmakers are finally catching up to something that the Navy and Coast Guard have known for a long time: The escalating conflict over fishing could lead to a “global fish war.”

This week, as part of the pending National Defense Authorization Act, Congress asked the Navy to help fight illegal fishing.
This is an important step.
Greater military and diplomatic efforts must follow.
Indeed, history is full of natural-resource wars, including over sugar, spices, textiles, minerals, opium and oil.
Looking at current dynamics, fish scarcity could be the next catalyst.

The decline in nearly half of global fish stocks in recent decades is a growing and existential threat to roughly 1 billion people around the world who rely on seafood as their primary source of protein.
No other country is more concerned about the increasingly empty oceans than China, whose people eat twice as much fish as the global average.
Beijing is also the world’s largest exporter of fish, with 14 million fishers in a sector producing billions of dollars a year.

In order to keep its people fed and employed, the Chinese government provides hundreds of millions of dollars a year in subsidies to its distant-water fishing fleet.
And in the South China Sea, it is common for its ships to receive Chinese Coast Guard escorts when illegally entering other countries’ fishing waters.
As such, the Chinese government is directly enabling and militarizing the worldwide robbing of ocean resources.

Fishing boats are put out to sea in Zhoushan, in China’s Zhejiang province, on Sunday.
The annual summer fishing ban, enforced on May 1 in the East China Sea, was scheduled to end on Friday, but Typhoon Talim delayed the start of fishing until Saturday.
(Photo: Xinhua)

The deployment of both hard and soft power to acquire natural resources is nothing short of hybrid warfare.
Countries on the receiving end of Chinese actions are responding in kind: Indonesia has blown up hundredsof vessels fishing in their waters illegally; Argentina sank a Chinese vessel illegally fishing in its waters last year; and South Africa continues to clash with Beijing over fishing practices.
Recently, Ecuador summoned the Chinese ambassador to condemn China’s fishing in Ecuadoran maritime territory following the seizure of 300 tons of illegally sourced fish.

The United States could be next.
Chinese vessels are increasingly fishing near our waters and are seeking to expand their footprint in the Caribbean.
U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Jay Caputo recently underscored this point: “It is imperative that the Coast Guard be prepared for when the Chinese fishing militia approaches the U.S. [exclusive economic zone].”

Emptier oceans also lead to increased transnational crimes.
The commander of the Navy’s 5th Fleet noted this year that “out-of-work fishermen” are often involved in weapons smuggling for countries such as Iran.
Drug traffickers also use fishing vessels around the world, including U.S. waters.
This summer in Miami, U.S. Customs and Border Protection interdicted a fishing vessel from the Bahamas carrying 150 pounds of cocaine.
These practices are rampant in Central and South America.

Debris flies into the air as foreign fishing boats are blown up by Indonesia’s navy off Batam Island, Indonesia, Feb. 22, 2016
(AP photo by M. Urip).

Dozens of international treaties govern the protection of marine resources, but significant enforcement gaps exist that substantially reduce their effectiveness.
The U.S. Navy is better suited to help close this gap than any other institution in the world.
And while the Navy already recognized in its 2015 strategic blueprint that combating illegal fishing is part of its mission, the recent congressional action provides an opportunity for the Navy and partners to increase its role.

To that end, the Navy should expand its partnership with the Coast Guard through the Oceania Maritime Security Initiative, which allows both military branches to enforce fisheries laws, combat transnational organized crime and enhance regional security in the Central and South Pacific.
This program should be replicated in other ocean territories.

The United States can also revitalize efforts by including fighting illegal fishing as part of the mission of the Combined Maritime Forces, a voluntary maritime security initiative with 32 member nations that operates to combat terrorism and piracy and provide overall maritime security.
Fighting illegal fishing is not part of the group’s mission, but in light of the geostrategic challenges associated with it today, member countries should reconsider its inclusion.

 Dead sharks are found in a ship’s hold, at sea, off the coast of Com in East Timor, in this undated photo made available by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society on September 15.
The environmental protection group said it led East Timor police to a Chinese-owned fishing fleet with an allegedly illegal cargo of sharks.
China’s boats do contribute significantly to illegal fishing but – at least from China’s perspective – not in Southeast Asian countries’ claimed waters in the South China Sea.
(Photo: EPA-EFE / Sea Shepherd Conservation Society)

Diplomatic efforts must be increased as well, starting with elevating environmental-crime issues, such as illegal fishing, within the U.S. government.
President Trump began that process this year by incorporating wildlife crime as part of an executive order on combating transnational organized crime.

Trump should also recognize illegal fishing as a direct threat to U.S.
interests in his National Security Strategy this fall.
Coupled with the congressional defense authorization, this would send a strong message to countries and criminals that the pillaging of our oceans is a serious threat to the United States — one that we must confront.

Links :

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The ships that could change the seas forever

 Transporting cargo across the oceans is vital in a global economy - yet ships sully our already polluted planet.
Some of the design solutions to fix that sound straight from science fiction.

From BBC by Chris Baraniuk

Last month in San Diego, California, an engineer sat down at his computer and gripped a joystick on the desk in front of him.
He wasn’t playing a video game – he was piloting a massive cargo ship thousands of miles away off the coast of Scotland.

The engineer’s joystick was directly linked to that vessel, via satellite, allowing him to control its movements precisely – entirely by manual remote control.
He watched carefully as a virtual ship’s changing position was plotted on his screen. Meanwhile, on board the ship itself, other workers overseeing the test eyed their equipment and felt the craft bob and pitch under their feet.
Over the course of a four-hour experiment – carried out by Finnish energy and technology firm Wärtsilä– it was manipulated by their colleague half-way round the world.

Wärtsilä believes that smarter ships of the future will allow ship owners to more efficiently control the movements of their vessels, reduce fuel consumption and lower emissions.
It’s an ambitious idea to tackle a grand challenge of the 21st Century, in which we are simultaneously more inextricably interlinked in global trade, but also face climate change that could change weather patterns, sea levels and seriously affect the journey of goods moving from A to B.

What’s more?
Those ships could be captain-free, and could one day be controlled from many miles away not by humans, but by computers.

The cargo ships of the future could travel across the oceans devoid of humans - and instead be remote controlled like a video game 5,000 miles away
(Credit: Wärtsilä)

Shipping is a gigantic industry, but it is not known for being the most hi-tech.
Many vessels criss-crossing the world’s oceans today are bulky, diesel-guzzling giants that haven’t fundamentally changed in many years.

Will ship designs change much in the near future?
And is automation, which we are already seeing more of in road vehicles, about to hit the waves as well?

Here's what a cargo ship remote-controlled by a human half a world away could look like.
A certain degree of automation could cut costs spent on crew.
(Credit: Wärtsilä)

A big driver for updating the world’s ships is the war on pollution.
In fact, just 16 of the largest vessels produce the same emissions as all the planet’s cars put together.
But large companies are also, of course, looking for ways of maximising their profits.

Wärtsilä’s experiment is still some way from becoming an everyday reality in shipping, admits head of digital Andrea Morgante.
But because ship owners could cut significant costs by removing human crews from their vessels, he’s convinced it has potential.
“You could imagine new forms of tugs that are remote-controlled, to support vessels in the harbour,” he says. Another option would be ships that transport cargo around ports or along coastlines.

In fact, one firm already working with others to test and deploy fully autonomous vessels that do this sort of thing without human pilots is Kongsberg, of Norway.
It has two ships in development, the Hrönn and the YARA Birkeland.
The Birkeland, an 80-metre long (264ft) container transporter will also be fully electric and is planned to enter service in the second half of 2018.

Peter Due, director of autonomy at Kongsberg, extols the accuracy of the sensors on board its test vehicles.
“One system can see a beer can – you can’t tell if it’s Heineken or Carlsberg but you can see a beer can coming up close [on the water],” he explains. Machine learning trains the system to know what sort of objects are important to avoid, he adds.
“A seagull is not something to be [wary] of but if you have a swimmer it will recognise that and act accordingly.”

A recent report by the University of Southampton suggested autonomous ships will arrive faster than expected, because of falling technological costs and a demand to solve a labour shortage in some areas of shipping.

But as Due points out, bodies like the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) will probably take several years to design regulations that allow autonomous vessels to operate in international waters.
Within a country’s national waters, however, local laws may allow for quicker adoption of such systems, he adds.

Regardless of who or what is piloting future ships – might it be human or robot? - the design of massive, emission-spewing commercial vessels is set to change.
And that’s another way that these vital modes of transport could lessen their impact on our planet.

The Yara Birkeland, set to be completed next year, is claimed to be the first autonomous shipping vessel in the world
(Credit: Yara International)

It is possible, for example, to build ships out of composite materials, for example glass fibres and plastic, which could greatly reduce the weight of some vessels and thereby improve fuel consumption and increase cargo capacity.

The European Union recently launched a project – Fibreship – to develop composite material hulls for cargo ships more than 50 metres (165ft) in length.

For some vessels, including passenger ships, this could be of benefit says Volker Bertram, a professor of ship design and a project manager at DNV GL, a classification society.
But he adds that for larger craft, especially those moving heavy cargo, steel will probably remain the material of choice.
“If you have an oil tanker and 90% of the weight of the oil tanker is cargo, there is not much motivation to build it in a lightweight fashion,” he explains.

 In the 21st Century, oceans are overrun with fossil fuel-spewing cargo ships, exacerbating climate change. But the ships of the future could run on sun
(Credit: Eco Marine Power)

Eco Marine Power, based in Japan, is working on rigid sails featuring solar panels that can be fitted to cargo ships.
“When we first started, it wasn’t that feasible to put solar [panels] on the rigid sails but the technology is always improving and the cost is coming down,” explains Greg Atkinson, director and chief technology officer.
He says any ships that use Aquarius will still need an engine and traditional fuel source, but wind and solar could additionally be used to reduce fossil fuel consumption.
Of the renewable energy portion, he believes that about 80% will come from the action of the wind on the sails and a further 20% from the solar panels.
Eco Marine hopes to trial its system at sea on a bulk carrier – a type of large commercial ship that moves bodies of cargo like iron ore, coal or grain.
“They’re good target ships [for this technology],” explains Atkinson.
“They’re going relatively slow and they’re sailing in some of the more favourable areas for wind.”

There are other such systems elsewhere in the world, as well, which plan to develop a cargo ship with rigid sails, this time a car carrier that could hold up to 2,000 vehicles.
But there are additional costs involved with designs like this – and indeed risks.
Rigid sails, of course, can be dangerous in high winds, especially if they cannot easily be folded onto or beneath the deck.
“It’s a bit sobering to see that so many concepts have been pushed, and via lots of publications, and we see relatively few installations,” notes Bertram.
He points out that digital technology is aiding ship designers and helping them to more accurately simulate how their vessels will perform in different conditions at sea.
Energy efficiency savings of a few percent may result from this work, he believes.

And techniques like 3D printing are probably going to change how some ship components are produced.
A prototype 3D printed propeller was recently produced by a consortium of shipping companies in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
Of course, if a part breaks at sea and requires replacing, 3D printing it on board might be an attractive prospect for owners of some of the world’s largest ships.

These ships of the future – monster vessels piloted half a world away like a toy, built from futuristic materials that cut emissions and potentially powered by the Sun – are behemoths of the sea that might just change the face of Earth’s oceans forever.

Links :

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

‘Fingerprinting’ the ocean to predict devastating sea level rise

From NewsDeeply by Erica Cirino

Scientists are using satellites to identify where increasing sea levels could result in the most destructive storm surge as hurricanes grow more powerful due to climate change.

Scientists are "fingerprinting"  sea level rise around the world in an effort to identify coastal areas most at risk from devastating storm surge, as hurricanes grow increasingly destructive.

Warming ocean temperatures due to climate change can fuel more powerful storms.
Hurricane-force winds push water onto land, putting lives and property at risk while rising sea levels in coastal areas have magnified the impact of such storm surge.
Now a new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters verifies the accuracy of a satellite-based monitoring tool called “sea level fingerprinting.”
The technology detects varying patterns in regional sea levels, which can be used for predicting how climate change will affect future storm surge in flood-prone coastal areas.

“Sea level fingerprints tell us about how sea level rises regionally around the globe due to melting ice sheets and changes in water storage,” said the study’s lead author, Isabella Velicogna, a professor of Earth system science at the University of California, Irvine, and a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
“Sea level fingerprints will provide information on where sea level rises faster and therefore the coastline is more vulnerable to storm surge.”

For 15 years, the GRACE mission has unlocked mysteries of how water moves around our planet.
It gave us the first view of underground aquifers from space, and shows how fast polar ice sheets and mountain glaciers are melting.
The bulk of the data used for the project was collected by a pair of Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites that can detect movement of water on Earth – such as sea level rise or depletion of freshwater aquifers – by measuring the resulting gravitational changes.
Velicogna and her coauthor Chia-Wei Hsu, a postdoctoral scholar at U.C.Irvine, compared 12 years of sea level fingerprint data with data taken by seafloor pressure sensors that measure the overlying mass of water and ice.
While the physical measurements are considered most accurate, Velicogna and Hsu found the satellite-derived measurements were very similar.

The scientists concluded that the satellite data provides a fairly accurate picture of sea level fingerprints that could create a roadmap for better placement of seafloor pressure sensors.
These sensors may be used to improve sea level fingerprint calculations in the future – and help people in vulnerable coastal zones better understand the extent of storm surge when a hurricane strikes.
Velicogna said that based on sea level fingerprint data, it’s already become clear which geographic regions are most vulnerable to floods.
“The greatest rise is not near the ice sheets – where sea level will actually fall – but far from the ice sheets,” said Velicogna.
“So, the largest increase in sea level is going to be at low latitudes” where the water mass of melted ice is redistributed over large areas.

Global sea levels have increased by an average of 3in (8cm) globally since 1992, with some areas experiencing a rise greater than 9in (23cm), according to NASA.
If climate change continues at its current pace, increased warming may melt enough of Earth’s ice caps, ice sheets and glaciers to raise average sea levels as much as 6.6ft (2m) by 2100

Artist’s conception of the GRACE spacecraft orbiting Earth.

The two GRACE satellites have been collecting data about Earth’s gravity field for the past 15 years, allowing scientists for the first time to calculate the depletion of freshwater supplies in aquifers around the world and the rate at which glaciers are melting.
But one of the satellites has nearly exhausted its nitrogen fuel supply and its battery is failing.
While NASA and its partner, the German Aerospace Center, have stabilized the failing satellite, they announced last week that both GRACE satellites would be decommissioned after a final mission ends in November.
Now the space agencies are rushing to put a new pair of satellites, GRACE-Follow-On, into orbit by early 2018 to avoid an interruption in the collection of crucial data.

In the meantime, scientists will continue monitoring the seas in an attempt to predict floods before they happen, especially before major storms.
“Sea level fingerprints will provide information on where sea level rises faster and therefore the coastline is more vulnerable to storm surge,” said Velicogna.

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Monday, September 18, 2017

The stunning underwater picture this photographer wishes ‘didn’t exist’

A small sea horse grabs onto garbage in Indonesia.
(Justin Hofman/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)

From Washington Post by Lindsey Bever

The powerful and poignant image shows a tiny sea horse holding tightly onto a pink, plastic cotton swab in blue-green waters around Indonesia.

California nature photographer Justin Hofman snapped the picture late last year off the coast of Sumbawa, an Indonesian island in the Lesser Sunda Islands chain.
The 33-year-old, from Monterey, Calif., said a colleague pointed out the pocket-size sea creature, which he estimated to be about 1.5 inches tall — so small, in fact, that Hofman said he almost didn't reach for his camera.
“The wind started to pick up and the sea horse started to drift. It first grabbed onto a piece of sea grass,” Hofman said Thursday in a phone interview.

Hofman started shooting.
“Eventually more and more trash and debris started to move through,” he said, adding that the critter lost its grip, then latched onto a white, wispy piece of a plastic bag.
“The next thing it grabbed was a Q-Tip.”

Hofman said he wishes the picture “didn’t exist” — but it does; and now, he said, he feels responsible “to make sure it gets to as many eyes as possible.”
He entered the photo and was a finalist in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition from the Natural History Museum in London.
“I want everybody to see it,” he added.
“I want everybody to have a reaction to it.”

Hofman, an expedition leader with EYOS Expeditions, said he was wrapping up an expedition in December 2016 when he photographed the sea horse.
As he watched the creature through its journey, he said, his “blood was boiling.”

Hofman said the garbage had washed in, polluting their spot in the sea with sewage that he said he could smell and taste, and that the sea horse was searching for a raft on which to ride it out.
“I had this beautiful, little tiny creature that was so cute, and it was almost like we were brought back to reality — that this is something that happens to the sea horse day in and day out,” he said.

After the Wildlife Photographer of the Year finalists were named this week, Hofman posted the picture on Instagram, prompting emotional responses from people across social media who called it an “eye opening” and “mind-blowing shot” that illustrates a “disgusting” reality.

“It’s a photo that I wish didn’t exist but now that it does I want everyone to see it,” Hofman wrote beneath the image.
“What started as an opportunity to photograph a cute little sea horse turned into one of frustration and sadness as the incoming tide brought with it countless pieces of trash and sewage. This sea horse drifts long with the trash day in and day out as it rides the currents that flow along the Indonesian archipelago.
“This photo serves as an allegory for the current and future state of our oceans. What sort of future are we creating? How can your actions shape our planet?
” he said.

Hofman said that he has since received messages from people all over the world.
“Some of them feel heartbroken, some of them feel frustrated,” he said, adding some in Indonesia acknowledged they have a problem with plastic pollution.

Indonesia is the world's second-largest producer of marine pollution, dumping 3.22 million metric tons of plastic debris per year, according to data published in 2015 by Environmental Health Perspectives.
The country has vowed to reduce such waste by 70 percent by the end of 2025, according to the United Nations.

Maybe, Hofman said, the photo, and others like it, can be catalysts to create change.
“We are really affecting our oceans with our negligence and our ignorance,” he said.

Links :

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Lines in the sand : when the beach becomes a canvas

Anyone can write their name in the sand, but Jim Denevan uses the beach to create stunning large-scale art.
What started as a hobby over 20 years ago has resulted in worldwide recognition, and he's created masterworks from Russia to Chile to Australia.
At the end of the day, though, Jim's just happy to find a new beach to make his canvas.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Get a closer look at the big solar flares that keep coming

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which watches the sun constantly, captured images of the events. Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation.
Harmful radiation from a flare cannot pass through Earth's atmosphere to physically affect humans on the ground, however — when intense enough — they can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel.
To see how this event may affect Earth, please visit NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center at, the U.S. government's official source for space weather forecasts, alerts, watches and warnings.
X-class denotes the most intense flares, while the number provides more information about its strength. An X2 is twice as intense as an X1, an X3 is three times as intense, etc.
The X9.3 flare was the largest flare so far in the current solar cycle, the approximately 11-year-cycle during which the sun’s activity waxes and wanes.
The current solar cycle began in December 2008, and is now decreasing in intensity and heading toward solar minimum.
This is a phase when such eruptions on the sun are increasingly rare, but history has shown that they can nonetheless be intense.

From CNET by Erik Mack

The sun should be quiet right now.
Instead, it's been shooting hot particles and plasma into space for the past week, to the delight of scientists.

Hot on the heels of the epic American total solar eclipse in August, our sun this month has followed up with what you might call totally cray behavior.
The biggest star around is supposed to be entering a phase of relatively little activity right now.
Yet it has spent the past week shooting off some of the biggest solar flares we've seen in over a decade.

The sun goes through 11-year cycles of solar activity, including a solar maximum when scientists expect to see the highest level of sunspots and solar flares.
But we passed that point in the current cycle in 2014 and are now approaching the solar minimum.
So it's a little surprising that a big sunspot has been shooting off a bunch of flares, including the biggest of the current cycle, for the past week.
A huge, so-called X-class flare (the highest level of intensity) was fired off Wednesday.
It released an amount of energy comparable to that of a billion hydrogen bombs and sent radiation and plasma soaring toward Earth that's not harmful to life thanks to our planet's atmosphere and magnetic field.
The solar storm can disrupt communications signals, however, and also fuels some pretty remarkable auroras
One X9.3 flare Wednesday was the strongest flare seen in over 12 years.
NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, which watches the sun continuously, caught a few different views of last week's flares that can be seen in the above video.
Scientists using a solar telescope on the Canary Islands also managed to capture a close-up view.

It’s always shining, always ablaze with light and energy that drive weather, biology and more.
In addition to keeping life alive on Earth, the sun also sends out a constant flow of particles called the solar wind, and it occasionally erupts with giant clouds of solar material, called coronal mass ejections, or explosions of X-rays called solar flares.
These events can rattle our space environment out to the very edges of our solar system.
In space, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO, keeps an eye on our nearest star 24/7.
SDO captures images of the sun in 10 different wavelengths, each of which helps highlight a different temperature of solar material.
In this video, we experience SDO images of the sun in unprecedented detail.
Presented in ultra-high definition, the video presents the dance of the ultra-hot material on our life-giving star in extraordinary detail, offering an intimate view of the grand forces of the solar system.

"The sun is currently in what we call solar minimum. The number of Active Regions, where flares occur, is low, so to have X-class flares so close together is very unusual," said Aaron Reid, a research fellow at Queen's University Belfast, in a news release.
"These observations can tell us how and why these flares formed so we can better predict them in the future."
A total of three X-class flares were observed over a 48-hour period, along with medium-intensity flares that went off earlier last week,  and another, just slightly less intense X-class flare on Sunday.
While the flare activity of the past week has been unusual and unexpected, it seems likely to come to an end soon.
The big sunspot responsible for the flares is about to disappear from view as part of the star's normal rotation.

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Friday, September 15, 2017

Self-driving boats: the next tech transportation race

 Sea Machines is pleased to announce the launch of the Sea Machines 300 autonomy system for commercial workboats.
It enables remote & autonomous command of a vessel, enabling enhancements in operability & safety.

From Phys by Matt O'Brien

The …more Self-driving cars may not hit the road in earnest for many years - but autonomous boats could be just around the pier.
Spurred in part by the car industry's race to build driverless vehicles, marine innovators are building automated ferry boats for Amsterdam canals, cargo ships that can steer themselves through Norwegian fjords and remote-controlled ships to carry containers across the Atlantic and Pacific.

The first such autonomous ships could be in operation within three years.
One experimental workboat spent this summer dodging tall ships and tankers in Boston Harbor, outfitted with sensors and self-navigating software and emblazoned with the words "Unmanned vessel" across its aluminum hull.
"We're in full autonomy now," said Jeff Gawrys, a marine technician for Boston startup Sea Machines Robotics, sitting at the helm as the boat floated through a harbor channel.
"Roger that," said computer scientist Mohamed Saad Ibn Seddik, as he helped to guide the ship from his laptop on a nearby dock.
The boat still needs human oversight.
But some of the world's biggest maritime firms have committed to designing ships that won't need any captains or crews—at least not on board.

In this Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 photo, a boat capable of autonomous navigation makes its way around Boston Harbor.
The experimental workboat spent this summer dodging tall ships and tankers, outfitted with sensors and self-navigating software and emblazoned with the words "UNMANNED VESSEL" across its aluminum hull.
(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Distracted seafarin

The ocean is "a wide open space," said Sea Machines CEO Michael Johnson.
Based out of an East Boston shipyard once used to build powerful wooden clippers, the cutting-edge sailing vessels of the 19th century, his company is hoping to spark a new era of commercial marine innovation that could surpass the development of self-driving cars and trucks.
The startup has signed a deal with an undisclosed company to install the "world's first autonomy system on a commercial containership," Johnson said this week.
It will be remotely-controlled from land as it travels the North Atlantic.
He also plans to sell the technology to companies doing oil spill cleanups and other difficult work on the water, aiming to assist maritime crews, not replace them.

Johnson, a marine engineer whose previous job took him to the Italian coast to help salvage the sunken cruise ship Costa Concordia, said that deadly 2012 capsizing and other marine disasters have convinced him that "we're relying too much on old-world technology."

In this Tuesday, Aug.15, 2017 photo, Jeff Gawrys, marine technician for Boston startup Sea Machines Robotics, prepares to disengage the navigation of a boat and switch the vessel over to fully autonomous control in Boston Harbor.
(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Spurred on by the car industry's race to build driverless vehicles, maritime companies are taking advantage of technological breakthroughs and broader public acceptance of artificial intelligence to design tugboats, ferries and cargo vessels that won't need captains or crews, at least not on board.

In this Aug.15, 2017 photo, computer scientist Mohamed Saad Ibn Seddik, of Sea Machines Robotics, uses a laptop to guide a boat outfitted with sensors and self-navigating software and capable of autonomous navigation in Boston Harbor.

Global race

Militaries have been working on unmanned vessels for decades.
But a lot of commercial experimentation is happening in the centuries-old seaports of Scandinavia, where Rolls-Royce demonstrated a remote-controlled tugboat in Copenhagen this year.
Government-sanctioned testing areas have been established in Norway's Trondheim Fjord and along Finland's western coast.
In Norway, fertilizer company Yara International is working with engineering firm Kongsberg Maritime on a project to replace big-rig trucks with an electric-powered ship connecting three nearby ports.
The pilot ship is scheduled to launch next year, shift to remote control in 2019 and go fully autonomous by 2020.
"It would remove a lot of trucks from the roads in these small communities," said Kongsberg CEO Geir Haoy.

Frank Marino with Sea Machines Robotics uses a remote control belt pack to operate a boat in Boston Harbor.
Spurred on by the car industry's race to build driverless vehicles, maritime companies are taking advantage of technological breakthroughs and broader public acceptance of artificial intelligence to design tugboats, ferries and cargo vessels that won't need captains or crews, at least not on board. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Spurred on by the car industry's race to build driverless vehicles, maritime …more Japanese shipping firm Nippon Yusen K.K.—operator of the cargo ship that slammed into a U.S.
Navy destroyer in a deadly June collision—plans to test its first remote-controlled vessel in 2019, part of a wider Japanese effort to deploy hundreds of autonomous container ships by 2025.
A Chinese alliance has set a goal of launching its first self-navigating cargo ship in 2021.

Cars Vs Boats

The key principles of self-driving cars and boats are similar.
Both scan their surroundings using a variety of sensors, feed the information into an artificial intelligence system and output driving instructions to the vehicle.
But boat navigation could be much easier than car navigation, said Carlo Ratti, an MIT professor working with Dutch universities to launch self-navigating vessels in Amsterdam next year.
The city's canals, for instance, have no pedestrians or bikers cluttering the way, and are subject to strict speed limits.
Ratti's project is also looking at ways small vessels could coordinate with each other in "swarms." They could, for instance, start as a fleet of passenger or delivery boats, then transform into an on-demand floating bridge to accommodate a surge of pedestrians.
Spurred on by the car industry's race to build driverless vehicles, maritime companies are …more Since many boats already have electronic controls, "it would be easy to make them self-navigating by simply adding a small suite of sensors and AI," Ratti said.

Armchair captains

Researchers have already begun to design merchant ships that will be made more efficient because they don't need room for seamen to sleep and eat.
But in the near future, most of these ships will be only partly autonomous.
Armchair captains in a remote operation center could be monitoring several ships at a time, sitting in a room with 360-degree virtual reality views.
When the vessels are on the open seas, they might not need humans to make decisions.
It's just the latest step in what has been a gradual automation of maritime tasks.
"If you go back 150 years, you had more than 200 people on a cargo vessel.
Now you have between 10 and 20," said Oskar Levander, vice president of innovation for Rolls-Royce's marine business.

 Rolls-Royce hopes its self-piloting ship concept will be the naval vessel of the future

Changing rules at sea

There are still some major challenges ahead.
Uncrewed vessels might be more vulnerable to piracy or even outright theft via remote hacking of a ship's control systems.
Some autonomous vessels might win public trust faster than others; unmanned container ships filled with bananas might not raise the same concerns as oil tankers plying the waters near big cities or protected wilderness.
A decades-old international maritime safety treaty also requires that "all ships shall be sufficiently and efficiently manned."
But The International Maritime Organization, which regulates shipping, has begun a 2-year review of the safety, security and environmental implications of autonomous ships.

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Offshore wind power cheaper than new nuclear

The cost of subsidies to the UK’s offshore wind farms in contracts awarded in auctions dropped more than 50 per cent and is now well below the price the government has guaranteed for energy from the planned Hinkley Point nuclear power plant
From BBC by Roger Harrabin

Energy from offshore wind in the UK will be cheaper than electricity from new nuclear power for the first time.

The cost of subsidies for new offshore wind farms has halved since the last 2015 auction for clean energy projects
Two firms said they were willing to build offshore wind farms for a guaranteed price of £57.50 per megawatt hour for 2022-23.
This compares with the new Hinkley Point C nuclear plant securing subsidies of £92.50 per megawatt hour.
Nuclear firms said the UK still needed a mix of low-carbon energy, especially for when wind power was not available.

'Truly astonishing'

The figures for offshore wind, from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, were revealed as the result of an auction for subsidies, in which the lowest bidder wins.
In the auction in 2015, offshore wind farm projects won subsidies between £114 and £120 per megawatt hour.

Emma Pinchbeck, from the wind energy trade body Renewable UK, told the BBC the latest figures were "truly astonishing".
"We still think nuclear can be part of the mix - but our industry has shown how to drive costs down, and now they need to do the same."

Bigger turbines, higher voltage cables and lower cost foundations, as well as growth in the UK supply chain and the downturn in the oil and gas industry have all contributed to falling prices.
The newest 8 megawatt offshore turbines stand almost 200 metres high, taller than London's Gherkin building.
But Ms Pinchbeck said the turbines would double in size in the 2020s.

 from NewScientist (July 2016)

Nuclear 'still needed'

However, the nuclear industry said that because wind power is intermittent, nuclear energy would still be needed.
Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, said: "It doesn't matter how low the price of offshore wind is. On last year's figures it only produced electricity for 36% of the time."

EDF, which is building the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant, said the UK still needed a "diverse, well-balanced" mix of low-carbon energy.
"New nuclear remains competitive for consumers who face extra costs in providing back-up power when the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine," the French firm said.
"There are also costs of dealing with excess electricity when there is too much wind or sun."
EDF added that energy from new nuclear plants would become cheaper as the market matures, as has happened with offshore wind.

Eyes will be raised at this suggestion, as nuclear power has already received subsidies since the 1950s.
But storage of surplus energy from offshore wind is still a challenge.

World's first floating offshore wind farm in Scotland :
Each wind turbine is taller than Big Ben and the farm can power 20,000 homes.

'Energy revolution'

Onshore wind power and solar energy are already both cost-competitive with gas in some places in the UK.
And the price of energy subsidies for offshore wind has now halved in less than three years.

Energy analysts said UK government policy helped to lower the costs by nurturing the fledgling industry, then incentivising it to expand - and then demanding firms should bid in auction for their subsidies.

Minister for Energy and Industry Richard Harrington said: "We've placed clean growth at the heart of the Industrial Strategy to unlock opportunities across the country, while cutting carbon emissions.
"The offshore wind sector alone will invest £17.5bn in the UK up to 2021 and thousands of new jobs in British businesses will be created by the projects announced today."

Michael Grubb, professor of energy policy at University College London, called the cost reduction "a huge step forward in the energy revolution".
"It shows that Britain's biggest renewable resource - and least politically problematic - is available at reasonable cost.
"It'll be like the North Sea oil and gas industry: it started off expensive, then as the industry expanded, costs fell. We can expect offshore wind costs to fall more, too," he said.

The subsidies, paid from a levy on consumer bills, will run for 15 years - unlike nuclear subsidies for Hinkley C which run for 35 years.
This adds to the cost advantage offshore wind has now established over new nuclear.

Prof Grubb estimated the new offshore wind farms would supply about 2% of UK electricity demand, with a net cost to consumers of under £5 per year.

Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green Party, said: "This massive price drop for offshore wind is a huge boost for the renewables industry and should be the nail in the coffin for new nuclear.
"The government's undying commitment to new nuclear risks locking us into sky high prices for years to come. Put simply, this news should be the death knell for Hinkley C nuclear station."

Along with three offshore wind farm projects, biomass and energy from waste plants have secured subsidies for low-carbon energy, with a total of 11 successful schemes in the latest auction.

The £57.50 for new offshore wind power is not a true subsidy.
It is a "strike price" - a guaranteed price to the generating firm for power it supplies.

When the wholesale market price for electricity is below that price, payments to the firm are made up with a levy on consumers.
However, when the wholesale price is above the strike price, the generator pays the difference back. It is a way of providing a certain return on investment for large energy projects.
It is impossible to predict what the final additional cost to consumers will be because it depends on market conditions, but it will almost certainly be a fraction of the strike price itself.
Experts warn that in order to meet the UK's long term climate goals, additional sources of low-carbon energy will still be needed.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

One of world's largest marine parks created off coast of Easter Island

Map of the planned marine park (source The Guardian)

From The Guardian by Arthur Neslen

Rapa Nui protection area, about same size as Chilean mainland, will protect up to 142 species, including 27 threatened with extinction

One of the world’s largest marine protection areas has been created off the coast of Easter Island.

 Rapa Nui with the GeoGarage platform (NGA chart)

The 740,000 sq km Rapa Nui marine park is roughly the size of the Chilean mainland and will protect at least 142 endemic marine species, including 27 threatened with extinction.

An astonishing 77% of the Pacific Ocean’s fish abundance occurs here and recent expeditions discovered several new species previously unknown to science.

Apex predators found in the conservation zone include scalloped hammerhead sharks, minke, humpback and blue whales, and four species of sea turtle.

Easter Island’s waters are teeming with sea life, including 142 species found nowhere else on the planet and 10 endangered species.
See the animals and other underwater wonders that make this area so unique.

Matt Rand, the director of the Pew Bertarelli ocean legacy project, which campaigned for the park, said: “This marine reserve will have a huge global significance for the conservation of oceans and of indigenous people’s ways of life.
“The Rapa Nui have long suffered from the loss of timber, declining ecosystems and declining populations. Now they are experiencing a resurgence based on ensuring the health of the oceans.”

Plans for the marine park were first announced at a conference in 2015, at which the former US president Barack Obama declared his “special love for the ocean” in a video message.
The plans were confirmed in a speech by Chilean president Michelle Bachelet on Saturday.

The marine park’s creation was enabled by a 73% vote in favour of the conservation zone from Easter Island’s 3,000 Rapa Nui population in a referendum on 3 September, after five years of consultations.

Extractive industries and industrial fishing will be banned inside the reserve, but the Rapa Nui will be allowed to continue their traditional artisanal fishing on small boats, using hand lines with rocks for weights.

The indigenous people of Easter Island, the Rapa Nui, are connected to the ocean.
Women and men fish for their families, and gather shells to craft traditional jewelry and artwork.
But what happens when fish stocks decline and plastic from other countries washes up on the Easter Island coast?
The Rapa Nui formed Te Mau O Te Vaikava O Rapa Nui -the Mesa del Mar- an effort made up of prominent fishing, tourism, environmental, and cultural leaders, to determine the best ways to protect their ocean waters for future generations.

Ludovic Burns Tuki, the director of the Mesa del mar coalition of more than 20 Rapa Nui groups, said: “This is a historic moment – a great and beautiful moment for the Rapa Nui, for the world and for our oceans.
“We think this process can be an example for the creation of other marine reserves that we need to protect our oceans – with a respect for the human dimension.”

After the creation of a comparable marine protection area around the nearby Pitcairn Islands last year, proposals for a reserve in the Austral Islands’ waters could soon create a protected area of more than 2m sq km
 This would have a unifying potential for the Polynesian people, according to Burns Tuki.
“The ocean is very important to us as a source of food, but the Polynesians were great navigators and the ocean also represents our mother,” he said.
“It enables us to move with a double canoe between the different islands. It gives us everything.”

As global warming takes hold, some scientific papers suggest that marine reserves may also help mitigate climate change and provide a vital carbon sink.
The deep, clear and cool waters around Easter Island are also a resilient area for coral reefs.

Marcelo Mena, Chile’s environment minister, said: “This marine protected area adds to the legacy of President Bachelet and the 1.5m sq km of protected areas created by this government.”

The International Union for Conservation of Nature has called for 30% of the world’s oceans to be protected, but only about 1.6% has so far been covered by marine protection areas.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Ship exhaust makes oceanic thunderstorms more intense

Lightning behind an aircraft carrier in the Strait of Malacca.
New research finds lightning strokes occurred nearly twice as often directly above heavily-trafficked shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea year-round from 2005 through 2016. Credit: public domain.

From Phys 

Thunderstorms directly above two of the world's busiest shipping lanes are significantly more powerful than storms in areas of the ocean where ships don't travel, according to new research.

A new study mapping lightning around the globe finds lightning strokes occur nearly twice as often directly above heavily-trafficked shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea than they do in areas of the ocean adjacent to shipping lanes that have similar climates.

The difference in lightning activity can't be explained by changes in the weather, according to the study's authors, who conclude that aerosol particles emitted in ship exhaust are changing how storm clouds form over the ocean.

The new study is the first to show ship exhaust can alter thunderstorm intensity.
The researchers conclude that particles from ship exhaust make cloud droplets smaller, lifting them higher in the atmosphere.
This creates more ice particles and leads to more lightning.

credit : NASA

The results provide some of the first evidence that humans are changing cloud formation on a nearly continual basis, rather than after a specific incident like a wildfire, according to the authors.
Cloud formation can affect rainfall patterns and alter climate by changing how much sunlight clouds reflect to space.
"It's one of the clearest examples of how humans are actually changing the intensity of storm processes on Earth through the emission of particulates from combustion," said Joel Thornton, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle and lead author of the new study in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

"It is the first time we have, literally, a smoking gun, showing over pristine ocean areas that the lightning amount is more than doubling," said Daniel Rosenfeld, an atmospheric scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who was not connected to the study.
"The study shows, highly unambiguously, the relationship between anthropogenic emissions - in this case, from diesel engines - on deep convective clouds."

A map of ships crossing the Indian Ocean and surrounding seas during June 2012.
Most ships crossing the northern Indian Ocean follow a narrow, nearly straight track around 6 degrees North between Sri Lanka and the island of Sumatra.
East of Sumatra, ships travel southeast through the Strait of Malacca, rounding Singapore and extending northeast across the South China Sea.
Aerosol particle emissions in these shipping lanes are ten times or more greater than in other shipping lanes in the region, and are among the largest globally.
Credit:, an interactive map of commercial shipping movements, created by Kiln for University College London's Energy Institute.

All combustion engines emit exhaust, which contains microscopic particles of soot and compounds of nitrogen and sulfur.
These particles, known as aerosols, form the smog and haze typical of large cities.
They also act as cloud condensation nuclei - the seeds on which clouds form.
Water vapor condenses around aerosols in the atmosphere, creating droplets that make up clouds.

Cargo ships crossing oceans emit exhaust continuously and scientists can use ship exhaust to better understand how aerosols affect cloud formation.

In the new study, co-author Katrina Virts, an atmospheric scientist at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, was analyzing data from the World Wide Lightning Location Network, a network of sensors that locates lightning strokes all over the globe, when she noticed a nearly straight line of lightning strokes across the Indian Ocean.

Virts and her colleagues compared the lightning location data to maps of ships' exhaust plumes from a global database of ship emissions.
Looking at the locations of 1.5 billion lightning strokes from 2005 to 2016, the team found nearly twice as many lightning strokes on average over major routes ships take across the northern Indian Ocean, through the Strait of Malacca and into the South China Sea, compared to adjacent areas of the ocean that have similar climates.

More than $5 trillion of world trade passes through the South China Sea every year and nearly 100,000 ships pass through the Strait of Malacca alone.
Lightning is a measure of storm intensity, and the researchers detected the uptick in lightning at least as far back as 2005.

"All we had to do was make a map of where the lightning was enhanced and a map of where the ships are travelling and it was pretty obvious just from the co-location of both of those that the ships were somehow involved in enhancing lightning," Thornton said.

The top map shows annual average lightning density at a resolution of about 10 kilometers (6 miles), as recorded by the WWLLN, from 2005 to 2016.
The bottom map shows aerosol emissions from ships crossing routes in the Indian Ocean and South China sea from 2010.
Credit: Thornton et al/Geophysical Research Letters/AGU.

Forming cloud seeds

Water molecules need aerosols to condense into clouds.
Where the atmosphere has few aerosol particles - over the ocean, for instance - water molecules have fewer particles to condense around, so cloud droplets are large.

When more aerosols are added to the air, like from ship exhaust, water molecules have more particles to collect around.
More cloud droplets form, but they are smaller.
Being lighter, these smaller droplets travel higher into the atmosphere and more of them reach the freezing line, creating more ice, which creates more lightning.
Storm clouds become electrified when ice particles collide with each other and with unfrozen droplets in the cloud.
Lightning is the atmosphere's way of neutralizing that built-up electric charge.

Ships burn dirtier fuels in the open ocean away from port, spewing more aerosols and creating even more lightning, Thornton said.

"I think it's a really exciting study because it's the most solid evidence I've seen that aerosol emissions can affect deep convective clouds and intensify them and increase their electrification," said Steven Sherwood, an atmospheric scientist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney who was not connected to the study.
"We're emitting a lot of stuff into the atmosphere, including a lot of air pollution, particulate matter, and we don't know what it's doing to clouds," Sherwood said.
"That's been a huge uncertainty for a long time. This study doesn't resolve that, but it gives us a foot in the door to be able to test our understanding in a way that will move us a step closer to resolving some of those bigger questions about what some of the general impacts are of our emissions on clouds."

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